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Buying influence? Corporations, conservative nonprofits sponsor seminars for judges
Investigation » Funding raises questions about educational trips and conflicts of interest.

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Oil industry support » In 2011, ExxonMobil reported giving $20,000 to George Mason specifically for its judicial training program. The oil company gave an additional $30,000 to the university’s Law & Economics Center, which hosts the conferences. Between 2003 and 2007, the ExxonMobil Foundation gave the think tank $150,000.

ExxonMobil officials did not respond to requests for comment.

At a glance

Utah’s Federal Judges took few trips

In the U.S. District for Utah, just four of 19 judges took trips during the 4 1/2 year period covered by the analysis.

William T. Thurman, chief judge of the state’s bankruptcy court, took three trips between 2009 and 2012. He attended the Economics Institute for Judges program at Northwestern in 2009 and 2012, and the Sir Richard May Seminar on International Law and International Courts organized by the International Judicial Academy at The Hague in the Netherlands in 2010.

Judge Kimball R. Mosier, who also is a bankruptcy judge, attended George Mason University’s Economics Institute for Judges in 2011.

Judge David Nuffer, who was officially elevated to the District Court in May, went to a seminar on “The Rule of Law” in 2010 while he was the chief magistrate judge for the district. It was sponsored by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center.

Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner attended a seminar titled “Mill on Liberty” in 2009 hosted by George Mason University in San Diego, Calif.

Appellate Judge Michael R. Murphy, one of two Utahns on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, attended a 2010 seminar on human rights in New York organized by The Aspen Institute. He apparently paid his own way, showing up as a funder for the seminar.

­— Brooke Adams

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Another seminar funder, Donors Trust, gave George Mason’s Law & Economics Center nearly $450,000 in general support in 2010. As the Center reported, Donors Trust helps conservative foundations and individuals give money anonymously to nonprofits that may take controversial positions.

A representative of Donors Trust declined to comment for this story.

The Searle Freedom Trust, a foundation advocating "economic liberty" which regularly donates to conservative groups like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, contributed a combined $400,000 to George Mason’s judicial education programs in 2010 and 2011.

The school conducted conferences on antitrust law as well as "Corporations and the Limits of Criminal Law," both funded by AT&T, BB&T, BP America, Cigna, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, FedEx Corp. and others.

"The Moral Foundations of Capitalism" was funded by the same group, and was the most popular George Mason conference, drawing at least 10 federal judges.

BP spokesman Scott Dean says the company has no record of ever directly contributing to the seminars but he did say BP gave the law school and the Law & Economics Center more than $37,000 between 2001 and 2008.

Seminars at Northwestern are hosted by the school’s Searle Center on Law, Regulation, and Economic Growth. The think tank, according to its website, was founded in 2006 thanks to a "generous grant" from Daniel C. Searle, the late pharmaceutical industry executive.

In 2009, the foundation gave $200,000 to Northwestern’s Searle Center for its judicial education program.

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Another Northwestern seminar funder, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation — a major supporter of conservative organizations, including the Heritage Foundation — gave $210,000 to the Searle Center between 2008 and 2010.

Records show corporate sponsorship at Northwestern was highest from 2008 through 2010, when a man named Henry Butler — now in charge of George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center — ran the Searle Center.

Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University’s School of Law, says corporate sponsorships at the school "ended the moment Butler left." Rodriguez says the school recently decided to terminate the programs. The dean says he’s against corporate sponsorship of judicial seminars.

"These programs should be free from any real or perceived conflict of interest," he says.

Some history » In the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocacy groups and media outlets raised concerns about judges attending privately funded conferences conducted in vacation destinations like Arizona, Montana and Florida.

Critics claimed that the undisclosed trips created conflicts of interest and cast doubt on the ability of judges to decide cases without bias.

Seminars hosted by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) attracted the most attention.

FREE, a Montana-based think tank championing "free-market environmentalism," drew criticism for its ideologically conservative seminars. In 2011, for example, FREE hosted "Terrorism, Climate & Central Planning: Challenges to Liberty & the Rule of Law."

Critics complained that judges spent their free time golfing, fishing and horseback riding at the conference’s Montana resort location. They worried that judges were being wined, dined and entertained by FREE’s funders, which included Koch Industries and Texaco Inc. (now part of Chevron Corp.).

Media scrutiny prompted members of Congress in 2000 to introduce legislation that would prohibit judges from accepting "anything of value in connection with a seminar." The bill, which died in committee, was opposed by the Judicial Conference, which claimed it restricted judges’ free speech rights.

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